Smelly clothes? How to clean a washing machine – it could be to blame

Do your clothes smell musty no matter how many times you wash them? It could be time to clean your washing machine

folded laundry
(Image credit: Getty/Poh Kim Yeoh / EyeEm)

Does your laundry smell even after a long wash and a good dry? If this sounds familiar it could be time to clean your washing machine. Yes, the thing that does the cleaning does need cleaning too, or it will start to get covered in mildew and make everything you wash in it smell bad. 

If you notice bad odours, this means mould or bacteria may be building up inside, while washing muddy clothes worn by active children on dirty dog walks will take its toll on any machine, which will also result in poorer washing results all round. 

Before you start, always read your washing machine’s manual for instructions on how to clean it – it's not worth invalidating your warranty if the manufacturer discourages certain methods. 

Use these quick tips to give yours a clean today. Use our guide to how to clean a washing machine for more tips.

1. Clean a washing machine's detergent drawer

The washing machine detergent drawer gets surprisingly dirty for an area that's designed to hold detergent. You'll find that mould and mildew – and just general gunk – can quickly build up, and with it, bacteria. Not a great place to start your wash, right? 

Now: To begin cleaning your washing machine, remove the detergent drawer at the front of the machine (check your manual if you need advice for how to fully remove it). Soak the drawer in hot, soapy water and, using an old toothbrush, scrub away any soap build up or mould. Rinse thoroughly, and dry with a tea towel. Before you put it back, clean out the cavity – it's likely there's some hidden mould there, too.

Later: Leave the detergent drawer open in between wash cycles, to prevent mould growing in there. Use only as much detergent as is necessary, following the guidelines on the packaging; overloading detergent will create a build up inside the machine.

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2. Clean a washing machine with vinegar

Cleaning your washing machine once a month is a wise move. It will help keep your whites whiter and ensure a sweet-smelling pile of laundry. 

Now: Set your machine on its hottest cycle (or a minimum of 60ºC) and pour 230ml of white vinegar directly into to the drum. The vinegar is the perfect solution to help to purify your machine – it's an excellent, natural way to kill bacteria, and the smell will disappear during the rinse cycle. 

Later: Keep a bottle of white vinegar handy near your washing machine – perhaps alongside your washing powder. That way, you'll easily remember to keep up the cleaning routine.

3. Clean a washing machine with bicarbonate of soda or baking soda

Using bicarbonate of soda is one of our very favourite cleaning hacks. It'll tackle washing machines with ease, but you can use it to clean everything from fridges to carpets, too, so having some handy is useful.

Now: Add two tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda into the detergent drawer, this will be acting as the soap. The soda and vinegar work together to naturally break through dirt and remove mould while cleansing and refreshing your washing machine. Start the hot cycle. 

Later: Once a month run an empty hot wash to eliminate any build-up and smells, adding the bicarbonate of soda or vinegar as an extra precaution. 

4. Clean a washing machine with bleach

If you're a fan of cleaning with bleach, you won't baulk at using it to clean a washing machine. It is, obviously, very effective at cleaning dirt and mould from both the drum and detergent drawer of the washing machine, and also the exterior.  

Now: Add half a cup of bleach directly into your washing machine's drum, and half into your detergent drawer. Run an empty hot wash. If you can pause your wash once the machine has filled with water, do so for a good hour. Then start the cycle again. Run an extra rinse cycle to ensure all the bleach has been removed. Once it's finished, wipe down the inside of the door and dry out the seals. 

Later: Next time you put on a wash, ensure it's a white one that might benefit rather than be damaged by any bleach residue left in the washing machine.

5. Leave the washing machine to dry

Cleaning a washing machine doesn't just involve cleaning – allowing it to dry properly is a must to prevent mould build-up in the first place. 

Now: Let the cycle come to a natural finish and open the door letting the inside of the drum air-dry. If any bad smells or excess grime are lingering repeat the process again.

Later: In between washes leave the door open, or at least until the interior and drum has dried out. This reduces the chance of mould and bacteria growing inside. 

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